More hard words on China’s “war for public opinion”

By David Bandurski — Noting a softer pitch to Hu Jintao’s newest media policy buzzword — “public opinion channeling,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导) — some have supposed that a relaxation of media restrictions in China is in the offing. That misguided notion has perhaps been re-enforced by another aspect of Hu’s policy re-orientation, namely more active reporting of breaking news stories by central CCP media like People’s Daily Online and Xinhua News Agency.

Hu’s policy is motivated not by an impulse to loosen the party’s grip on the media, but rather by an interest in more effective control. How do we know this?

Partly, of course, from the intensification of traditional media controls designed to enforce propaganda discipline — the issuing of orders and bans, the killing of news stories, the blocking of Websites and keywords.

But we can also look at the political valence of the party’s own language used to articulate and disseminate Hu Jintao’s new media policy.

While we would expect moves toward greater media openness in China to arise from the right end of the political spectrum (the right end of the party spectrum, that is), the tactics of Control 2.0 are articulated in decidedly hardline, leftist tones.

There is an interesting tension here, in fact, between the softened tone of propaganda under Control 2.0 — the need to make the party’s messages less staid and ideological and more attractive (in the spirit of The Founding of a Republic) — and the rigid, uncompromising language used to describe the CCP’s ultimate news and propaganda objectives.

One of the best examples is a recent piece by Hu Xiaohan (胡孝汉), the head of the Central Propaganda Department’s Information Bureau and vice-chairman of the All-China Journalist’s Association. Hu is a a former Xinhua News Agency journalist now rising rapidly through the ranks of China’s propaganda bureaucracy. [You can visit Hu's blog at the online site of the official Guangming Daily, published by the Central Propaganda Department].

In a piece published recently in China Journalist (中国记者), a key official vehicle for news policy published by Xinhua News Agency, Hu Xiaohan writes in starkly militaristic terms of Hu Jintao’s more robust media policy. The essence of the piece is the need to fight out a more commanding position for “China’s voice” on the international stage, and to push back against Western media and other “hostile forces” that attack and demonize China.

CMP director Qian Gang wrote earlier this month that “if China’s leaders have a faith today, it is not Marxism-Leninism but pragmatism.” And Hu Xiaohan’s China Journalist article shows us clearly how pragmatism is driving the CCP’s vast system of press controls.

Hu (and we could be talking about either Hu now) draws inspiration directly from Sun Tzu’s practical art of war [in Chinese]. He writes about the need for the CCP to gain the advantage in international public opinion by striking first, or xian fa zhi ren (先发制人), for major news stories. He writes about forestalling China’s enemies on the “battlefield of public opinion” by making an overwhelming show of force, or xian sheng duo ren (先声夺人).

In their foreign policy, CCP leaders push the notion of a “harmonious world.” But China’s media policy is predicated on a hard-line world view that sees China “at war” with a monolithic bloc of hostile Western nations and their shameless media bent on keeping China down.

A partial translation follows of Hu Xiaohan’s article, which is one of the most important media policy-related documents to appear in China in recent months:

Holding the commanding position: thoughts on enhancing public opinion channeling under new conditions
China Journalist
September 21, 2009
By Hu Xiaohan (胡孝汉)

Holding the commanding position (占领制高点) means grabbing hold of the discourse in the midst of news campaigns. Standing on the offensive in the war for public opinion is an important method and means of grasping the initiative [and advantage], and by employing this important battle tactic and strategy we may mark up victories [in the struggle for the agenda]. In recent years, in fighting news campaigns surrounding everything from large-scale natural disasters to major sudden-breaking incidents, from public opinion channeling for key social issues to the struggle for public opinion in combating secessionist violence, news media have actively taken the commanding position, working hard to strike first and win successive [public opinion] campaigns. And they have accumulated a wealth of experience [on this front].

1. The crucial meaning and active role of holding the commanding position

The original meaning of ‘commanding position’ derives from the art of warfare, in which one can, within a particular area or context, gain a view from an elevated position of how the enemy is positioned and how his firepower is arrayed. By holding a commanding position one has the advantage of looking down from above and grasping the overall position. One therefore maintains an advantage in terms of both attack and defense. In this way, the various weapons in one’s arsenal can be deployed to their fullest advantage, maximizing injury to and containment of the enemies arrayed in positions below one’s own armies. This is often the key to victory or defeat in warfare.

This idea and strategy of war is something we must borrow and expand upon. Holding the commanding position means that in the midst of various conflicts and engagements of public opinion, we grasp the overall picture of how public opinion [on a given issue] is shaping up, grasp the key points and main attack objectives of public opinion channeling, and gain the position of first advantage in terms of content, timeliness, position and angle. It means that we take the initiative, gain control of the situation, and restrain the space in which negative public opinion can spread . . .

Gaining the commanding position is a tactic of war, and it is crucial to determining whether or not a campaign is won; gaining the commanding position is a strategy, and it relates directly to whether or not an overall war strategy can be achieved.

Just as in the fighting of military wars, the fighting of public opinion wars requires careful consideration of tactics and strategy. In each struggle for public opinion, the commanding position must be sought and held and initiative must be taken, in order that the goals and tasks of public opinion channeling are reached and that success and victory result in the struggle for public opinion.

Of late, the international and domestic environment facing news and propaganda work has dramatically transformed. Grabbing hold of the discourse and taking the commanding position are tasks of absolutely critical importance. As for the channeling of critical domestic issues, the reform process has developed to a critical stage — social and economic segments, modes of association, forms of employment, benefit relationships and modes of distribution are becoming daily more diverse, and mindsets are in a state of growing diversity and change. Therefore, the channeling of pressing social issues is of extreme importance. Ensuring that news and propaganda cleave to the core [demands of the party], serve the overall [political] circumstances, promote economic development and protect social stability requires that we fight each propaganda engagement effectively, that we are not reticent about engaging hot issues, that we are adept at channeling points of difficulty [or social and political sensitivity], that we strictly grasp the initiative in public opinion, and stand in a commanding position.

Judging from changes to the terrain of international public opinion and the conversations between various cultures and systems of thought around the world . . . the struggle for and against infiltration in the ideological sphere has become intense and complex. Hostile forces have whipped up successive waves of public opinion against China, and the international struggle for public opinion grows more fierce by the day. The question of how our national image and national interests can be protected and preserved in the realm of news and propaganda in an international order in which “the West is strong and we are weak” (西强我弱) demands that we apply our hand to every public opinion engagement, give careful consideration to strategies and methods — turning tactics into active victories in [public opinion] engagements, turning the tide of the war through strategic victories . . .

As communication technologies have advanced and the Internet and other new media have achieved rapid development . . . this has had a profound impact on the mechanisms by which public opinion emerges in society and the channels through which it is communicated. The public opinion environment is now far more complex, and gaining a solid hold on public opinion channeling has become a far more difficult task. In order to grasp the initiative in public opinion formation under the conditions of Internet and information technology development (网络化/信息化) — thereby ensuring the healthy coordination of news public opinion, public opinion in society and online public opinion — we must hold the commanding position on the Internet, this critical battlefield for the contesting of public opinion. We must extend the fibers of propaganda, and we must disseminate the mainstream [CCP] voice, ensuring that [the Internet] becomes an effective platform for the channeling of public opinion . . .

Holding the commanding position works toward gaining the advantage by striking first (先发制人) and toward grabbing the initiative. In reporting on sudden-breaking incidents, it is only by holding the commanding position, releasing authoritative information at the earliest possible moment, overawing others with an initial display of strength (先声夺人), issuing timely and accurate reports on the incident and reporting objectively and comprehensively on measures being taken to handle it . . . that we can grasp the initiative in public opinion channeling and promote the resolution of the situation. [NOTE: The above reference to coverage centers on coverage of the immediate facts surrounding sudden-breaking incidents, and does not suggest coverage will deal in-depth with the causes behind various incidents.]

The April 28, 2008, train collision was a relatively successful example of public opinion channeling. Overseas media did not turn this into a major focal point, largely due to the fact that relevant [government] departments were quick to release information and report the facts, holding a commanding position over public opinion.

Holding a commanding position is an advantage in staying on top and expanding influence in the struggle for international public opinion. International news reporting is still largely in the hands of Western developed nations. Their reports to a large degree determine the first reactions of publics around the world to international news events and shape their understanding of events. Owing to differences in its political system and ideology, the demonizing of China has gone on unabated internationally. Some Western media whip up attach after attack in the public opinion arena . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 30, 2009, 4:46pm HK]

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